Space: No More Hiding In Plain Sight

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July 5, 2016: The U.S. intelligence community is not happy with the increasing speed with which amateur sky watchers find, and often correctly identify, newly launched intelligence gathering satellites. Knowing where a spy satellite is alerts those below to the fact they could be under scrutiny. It used to take months, years or never for current locations of spy satellites to be revealed. But as knowledge of simple (not requiring radar) techniques and orbital mechanics spread amateurs became more effective. For example large spy satellites can often be seen with the naked eye but they appear as another star. If you take a long exposure photo of the night sky and note a “star” that is not moving, it is probably a satellite.

This is apparently what exposed details of a recent (mid-June) launch of an unidentified (classified) American satellite into a geosynchronous orbit over some spot on the planet. A geosynchronous orbit is one where the satellite stays above one spot or, at most, slowly moves from where it was initially placed. In less than 72 hours the location (near the Strait of Malacca, which separates Malaysia from one of the large Indonesian islands) of the new satellite was found and revealed to all. The amateur sky watchers deduced that the unidentified satellite was probably a Mentor electronic reconnaissance satellite. These six ton birds deploy the largest antenna array (over 110 meters in diameter) ever used in a satellite. Details of how Mentor satellites operate is highly classified, but they are known to pick up a large number of electronic signals from ships, aircraft, and ground stations, as well as other satellites. This one appeared to be slowly drifting towards Central Africa.

Because of the growing network of thousands of amateur astronomers and orbital addicts who connect via the Internet and constantly scour the orbital space for new objects, it has become impossible to hide the location of intelligence (“spy”) satellites. These eager amateurs have been around before their were space satellites but as satellites started going up in large numbers in the 1960s there was more interest in these new objects that could often be seen with the naked eye. Before space satellites finding anything new up there was rare. But once the Internet arrived and its availability spread.

The U.S. intelligence community went public with their displeasure in 2000 when a group of amateur intelligence analysts and sky watchers posted on the Internet the orbital positions of all current American intelligence satellites. The list included one that was apparently a stealth spacecraft launched in 1990. This web site, Heavens-Above.com (which has now morphed into a smart phone app) provided everything they need to know about what is up there, what their orbits are and how to calculate when each satellite will pass over a specific part of the world. At that time the United States had nine active intel satellites including KH12 photo satellites, Lacrosse radar surveillance satellites and Rhyolite electronic communications interception satellites.

 


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